Reaction to Pa. voter ID ruling: Some say hooray, some say 'huh?'
October 2, 2012By Emma Jacobs, Mary Wilson and NewsWorks Staff
Videos by Lindsay Lazarski and Tom MacDonald
If you try to vote at a Pennsylvania polling place in the Nov. 6 general election, you might be asked to produce photo identification.
But your right to vote will not be blocked if you lack the proper ID.
That's the bottom line from today's complex decision on Pennsylvania's voter ID law. The ruling by Commonwealth Court Judge Robert Simpson produced varying reactions and some confusion.
Simpson did not overturn the law. But he said the state had so far issued surprisingly few new photo IDs, compared to estimates of how many eligible voters lacked them. That, he said, gave him cause to worry that, come election day, some people might be wrongfully denied the right to vote.
Reactions, and work to be done
Nathaniel Persily, a Columbia University law professor, summed up the resulting confusion this way: "What we need more than anything else is clarity as to what the rules are on election day. This decision didn't really give it, but it does tend to suggest that no voter is going to be turned away and no voter is not going to have their ballot counted as a result of the ID law."
Simpson told the state to continue its soft roll-out of the law. As in the April primaries, pollworkers will ask for ID on Election Day, but those without them can still cast a ballot.
Carole Aichele, as Pennsylvania's secretary of state, has been in charge of implementing voter ID. Her reaction to Simpson's ruling: "Our thinking at this point is that we will continue to educate voters about voter ID and await further direction from the court sometime in the future."
State Rep. Dwight Evans, a Philadelphia Democrat who had been at the forefront of the fight against the law, had a succinct reaction: "This is a great day for the people of Pennsylvania."
Zachary Stalberg, head of the government watchdog group Committee of Seventy, called Simpson's ruling "the fair and pragmatic thing to do at this point."
Al Schmidt, a Republican city commissioner who helps oversee elections in Philadelphia, had tried previously to demonstrate that voter fraud is a bigger problem in Philadelphia than most Democrats claim.
He said Simpson's ruling basically sets up a rerun of the spring primary, where voters were asked to produce ID to familiarize them with the coming requirement: "We're still working our way through the decision to figure out how it affects what we do, what we don't do and what we have to undo."
Simpson said he was not convinced all voters who need an ID would be able to get one by Election Day, mentioning that the commonwealth has only issued a little more than 10,000 IDs for voting purposes. The judge said that he "expected more photo IDs to be issued by this time."
Penda Hair, co-director of the Advancement Project, part of the coalition challenging the law in court, said a lot of work remains to be done: "The major task before us and before the state of Pennsylvania is to make sure that voters know that they will be able to vote; the polls will be open to them."
The Pennsylvania Voter ID Coalition says it plans to shift its resources to registration and voter turnout efforts.
Still may be appealed
Simpson had originally upheld the voter ID law in the most part.
Tuesday's ruling came after the state Supreme Court bounced the issue back to him. The high court instructed him to review the state's progress in providing proper ID to people who deserved it, to make sure no one risked being wrongfully disenfranchised because of shoddy implementation of the law.
This time, Simpson said the low totals of new photo IDs issued led him to conclude the state had not met the bar set by the high court.
Simpson's ruling still could be appealed to the Supreme Court by either side.
In the wake of the ruling, though, neither side seemed to be itching to revive the court fight before the election.
Vic Walczak, director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania, says challengers won’t appeal - as long as the commonwealth promises to pull ads saying Pennsylvanians need I-D to vote on Election Day.
The ads "could promote confusion among poll workers and any time you have confusion on Election Day, it’s not a good thing for democracy," Walczak said.
Gov. Corbett said that he doubted the state would appeal the ruling. He also said changing the ads is not unreasonable:
"If there’s confusion based upon an ad, I will have them look to see if we can eliminate the confusion."
But Aichele did point out that, since the voter ID law has not been overturned, the state still will prepare to enforce it in future elections.
The voter ID issued has raised passions because some of the law's critics have accused Republicans of using the requirement to depress voter turnout in urban minority areas, where residents are less likely to have the proper ID or be able to afford to obtain it.
Proponents countered that voter fraud is real problem that often goes undetected and dilutes the votes of legitimate voters.